Surely you are familiar with the Howard Hawks definition of a good movie. I regret to say that My Cousin Vinny does not pass Hawks’ test. While the courtroom comedy has at least three genuinely great scenes — none greater than Marisa Tomei’s all-timer of a comic performance when she takes the stand and spars with Joe Pesci — it also has a few legitimately bad ones.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say you can basically skip the movie’s first half hour and not miss much. It’s pretty dire: We get not one but two painfully dragged out farce bits where the characters are talking about different things but don’t realize it due to ambiguous wordings; one of which is a terrible “don’t drop the soap” prison sex gag. Pesci and Tomei roll into town, but even they don’t immediately resuscitate the movie, as they have to be cartoonish New Yorkers for a few scenes to force feed us the idea that they’re fish out of water.
I’d say that’s an overarching problem of the film: It doesn’t trust its viewers very much. I’m all for set up and payoff, but the extent to which this movie unnecessarily foreshadows details that will be relevant during the third act (e.g. the length of time it takes to cook grits) is a bit grueling.
However, I come here not to bury this cherished film but to praise it to the high heavens. For as much as it’s an imperfect film with a slow start, it is one of my all-time favorite comedies. The three leads — Pesci, Tomei, and Fred Gwynne as a drawling judge — are each independently phenomenal and also have terrific chemistry. Ralph Macchio brings perfect innocent but nervous energy to his falsely-accused role. (After seeing him in this and The Outsiders, I’m wondering how he didn’t go on to an Oscar-winning career.)
The big revelation watching this time was that I had forgotten just how much of a smarmy, aw-shucks huckster Lane Smith is as the district attorney. It’s maybe the sixth-most important role in the film but his deliveries had me cackling.
It’s the movie’s courtroom scenes where My Cousin Vinny earns its place in history… Maybe not film history, but certainly my YouTube history, as they remain some of my most-watched clips of any film. The terms “magic grits,” “seven bushes,” and “Positraction” will forever make me smile.
I also love how much the movie gradually humanizes all of its characters. Nobody here is evil; everyone is just trying to do their job and find justice. Frankly, the evidence does look bad at first; I don’t blame the cops and judges acting as if Billy and Stan are guilty.
What a funny, lovely movie. Flawed, but infinitely rewatchable. (And, yes, she deserved that Oscar.)
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100
Exceptionally Good (7/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.